My Dear and beloved companion of my bosom, in tribulation, and affliction,...I have a great anxiety about you, and my lovely children...If I do not meet you again in this life, may God grant that we may meet in heaven. I cannot express my feelings. My heart is full...oh my kind and affectionate Emma, I am yours forever your husband and true friend. Joseph Smith, Jr.
Sure, Joseph wrote love notes like these to his wife Emma. But to convince Miss Nancy Rigdon to join him in plural marriage he also wrote such doctrinal gems as this:
"Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another." (Joseph Smith to Miss Nancy Rigdon, 11 April 1842)
I'm a sucker for a guy who can expound spiritual truths. If you want to make my knees weak, quote me some scripture. And Joseph was the fount of personal, original scripture. I admire his desire to draw near to Deity, from the time he was a young boy until the end of his life.
Joseph was also a passionate and virile man. He had a romantic nature that was drawn to metaphysical ideas such as Swedenborg's theories on the premortal existence of spirits. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner stated:
"Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him."
Elsewhere she wrote that Smith told her he had been commanded to marry her, "or Suffer condemnation—for I [Mary] was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid" (Compton, p. 19, quoting Mary Elizabeth Lightner, Autobiography). I'm sentimental, too--there's something in this idea that appeals to me. I want to believe in "soul-mates," those beings who have had and will have an eternal spiritual connection. I'm sure such a proposition, made by the tall, mesmerizing Joseph, would really have hooked me.
Joseph the man appealed to everyone. Those who met him were often profoundly affected. Wrote Wilford Woodruff:
“Before I saw Joseph I did not care how old he was, or how young he was. I did not care how he looked—whether his hair was long or short; the man that advanced that revelation was a prophet of God. I knew it for myself. I first met Joseph Smith in the streets of Kirtland. He had on an old hat, and a pistol in his hand. Said he, ‘Brother Woodruff, I’ve been out shooting at a mark, and I wanted to see if I could hit anything.’ And, said he, ‘Have you any objection to it?’Joseph had a strong physical and charismatic attraction. And besides that, he was the most powerful man in his immediate vicinity. He was the lieutenant-general of 3,000 men in the Nauvoo Legion the militia of the State of Illinois. He had his eye on the highest political office in the nation, and his word sent men from home and family to preach the gospel abroad and women from comfortable circumstances to gather to Zion with the Saints. A familial sealing bond to Joseph could assure salvation, he promised.
‘Not at all,’ said I. ‘There is no law against a man shooting at a mark, that I know of.’
He invited me to his house. He had a wolf skin, which he wanted me to help him to tan; he wanted it to sit on while driving his wagon team. Now, many might have said, ‘You are a pretty prophet; shooting a pistol and tanning a wolf skin.’ Well, he tanned it, and used it while making a journey of a thousand miles. This was my first acquaintance with the Prophet Joseph. And from that day until the present, with all the apostasies we have had, and with all the difficulties and afflictions we have been called to pass through, I never saw a moment when I had any doubt with regard to this work. I have had no trial about this. While the people were apostatizing on the right hand and on the left, … it was no temptation to me to doubt this work or to doubt that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946, pp. 29–30.)
But it's more than this that assures my affection.
I'm bothered by the view of Joseph Smith that's become popular lately. You know the one-- it's bandied about in online discussion as well as at ward social occasions. Joseph was simply wrong about polygamy, some say. Perhaps he got the message from God a little confused; or had some personal shortcomings that led him to sin in this manner. Not enough to keep him from being the revered Prophet of the Restoration. But enough to make his marriage practices suspect and inappropriate.
I don't believe that Joseph was confused, or wrong, or sinful. I think he was doing what he did with other social, political and cultural conventions of the day; throwing them on their heads. I think it was Divine intention that the social customs and attitudes of the day be challenged so that the light of new ideas and revelation could be poured out. I think it is interesting to discuss the implications of Joseph Smith's many marriages; and, in fact, I would like to have joined him in his dedication to a brave new world.
I understand that for many modern Latter-day Saints, the topic of earthly or even heavenly plural marriage is uncomfortable. But I always feel hopeful when someone is able to embrace the strangeness, the complexity, the amazing richness of our history. Confusing and wrenching, yes, but with aspects of challenge and gloriousness. It will not fit in a box or be explained.
Though I've never met him, I've been profoundly affected by the energetic and enigmatic Joseph Smith, unusual conjugal practices and all. I'll close with the sentiments of Brigham Young, which would have been mine had I been alive with the Prophet Joseph:
"I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet..." (Discourses of Brigham Young, 458.)
***more of my musings on Joseph Smith over at Mormon Matters today!